Metamorphosis, the Holiday Edition

My kids got pencil sharpeners in the advent cal today. They were so excited. “oooh! pencil sharpeners! Just what I needed!”

The fascinating Christmas facts are a hit, too. We’re collecting them in a jar so that they can read them again when the Eckenrode kids get here.

On deck tonight: Christmas tree decoration, scented bath salts and bath bombs. I’m using a silicone mini muffin pan for the molds. Tomorrow, we’ll do the nail polish mugs and maybe the felted soaps, if the wool arrives in the mail in time.

This is the Christmas I remember. Weeks of creating gifts, testing new recipes, simmering homemade potpourri on the stove, and just doing a slow buildup to a really nice day with family.

Along the way I lost that. The year I met my ex, I picked apples and made apple butter to give out to friends and family. The following year, our first year together (still in Asheville) my friend Dayna and I spend six Saturdays making components for gift baskets: bath salts, bath bombs, cds, banana bread, apple butter, and one day to build baskets. It was my favorite part. The making, the building, the giving away.

When you lose your footing in the world, the pleasures of living fall away. And when you are, for whatever reason, not in a reciprocal relationship of care and nurturing, life becomes a struggle to exist. As the years wore on, Christmas became centered around coordinating plans with family from other places. As I began to feel more and more alone in my marriage, the holidays were – not a chore, not like that – it was more that we were pretending so hard, and I don’t like pretending. The holidays themselves didn’t depress me. The fact that the holidays served to amplify and shine a spotlight on the decaying carcass of our marriage depressed me. We did what we did to keep things consistent for the children, and they have nice memories of those years so I guess we did our job. But man, it hurts so much to have missed so much with them because I was working so hard just to stay afloat.

I resolved to stop pretending, when we split. If I didn’t feel the holidays, I wouldn’t lie about it. I would aggressively care for myself so that I could care for my kids. It’s been working.

I feel like me again. I’m coming back.

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I borrowed a camera and this is what happened

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So I borrowed my best friend’s camera body, and I added a 50mm lens and a 35mm lens to the the deal. I somehow have forgotten everything I ever knew about taking photographs. I wish I could tell you that it’s great fun, at 43, to teach yourself how to use a camera again, but it isn’t even a little bit. It’s humbling in a way that makes me want to go back home and go to bed every time I realize I’ve snapped 200 photos and three came out focused correctly or lit well.

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They tell us though, that to be good at something, we have to just go do it, a lot. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

I have a tendency to get right up close to a subject. I’m trying to learn to back up a bit, to frame a shot well. But my instinct is to get in there and seek out the meat of things. I don’t know if there is a more perfect subject than Avery. She frets over her hair and her dark circles and her small stature and basically everything about her whole being, and all I can see is every single perfect thing about her. How she doesn’t just faint every time she looks in the mirror, I don’t know.
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I don’t have an external flash or external lights or reflectors, so I find myself with muddy, grainy shots or blurry portraits more than I’d like. But I’m getting there.
DSC_0016Portraits aren’t my very favorite, but I sure do love taking photographs of my little family.

I don’t know if anyone out there remembers what Hannah looked like as a kid, but Celica is most definitely her clone. Genetics, amiright?

Jack is finally at an age where he’ll sit still long enough to be captured on film, and even give a smirk toward the lens for a hot second.

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Now, I don’t talk much on the blog about Nathan, who’s been with me for about a year and a half now. We like him a whole bunch and we think we’re going to
DSC_0019keep him around as long as he’ll stay. He’s ridiculously photogenic. He will grumble and complain that the beard ages him but I adore it.  I love that this photo represents an afternoon we spent playing on the porch with our granddaughter who spun in circles dressed in a mermaid outfit until the mosquitoes chased us inside. We live just the most incredibly charmed life.
DSC_0037Speaking of mermaids, here’s one now…

 

And here’s her mama’s gorgeous new hair by Erin SpannDSC_0036

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, I think I might go into pet portraiture. Following my dad’s dog around searching for the perfect shot was pretty relaxing.

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The Hard Work of Grief, the Moving Forward

Grief is hard work. I’m exhausted. My pinkie toes feel broken, which means I’m at the beginning or some mid point of an RA flare. I’m eating terrible food, defiantly. Nathan made chicken and dumplings again, bless him. I miss my sister all the time, every day. Sometimes she and I would go a long time without talking. (By talking obviously I mean texting.) So it’s a little surreal, I think, to feel her absence in such a profound way. She is…not going to answer my texts. I send them, anyway. Her phone has been shut off. But I write to her, and I read every little piece of email that ever flew back and forth between us, and I miss her. I think about how she wanted to carve out a niche for herself, outside the mainstream career world and I want that, too. I took some time off. I don’t have to go back to work just yet. I’m playing with the kids. I’m taking them back and forth to school. During the day, I mostly write, and send resumé info to the internet, and listen. People are telling me their stories about death. I want to hear them. Tell me. Tell me, do you have a story about death? I’m collecting stories. 


The mosquitoes are incredible. Just overwhelmingly terrible, and my grand plans to have coffee on the deck, do yoga in the mornings, hang around on the nature trail- all derailed by bugs. It’s hard to leave the house. But I’ve done it. We forced the kids to go to the movies. We shopped for groceries. I drove to Key West and back. I traveled with my sister’s ashes, in a shiny silver bag. I came home and tried on her impossibly high wedge heels. I almost wore her purple wig to drop the kids off at school today. I didn’t want to brush my hair.

Tomorrow I’m going to meet a stranger for coffee. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, but I’m not sure how, yet. And I’m not sure about privacy, yet. But if I do this thing, it would be the beginning of something remarkable. “your ad really spoke to me”, she said. And I said “tell me your story. Let’s meet.” and that was probably the most frightening thing I’ve said in a long time. “let’s meet.”
 
Remember? I said I wanted to do something different. Scary.
 
So after coffee I’ll take my borrowed Nikon and I’ll walk through Riverside and take some photos, and maybe I’ll come here and share some of them with you all. 

Walking My Sister Home

IMG_5805We’re all just walking each other home”
-Ram Dass

I may never write a full account of my last moments with Erin . But I want to say this: I believe very strongly in the message behind this Ram Dass quote, and as my sister was taking her last breaths, I believed that she could hear me. I told her many times that night that I would not leave her side and that I would hold her hand and walk her all the way home. The theme of that last day & night, you could say, was this.

Aunt Barbara Whiteherse and Susan Leigh were with Erin all day, sitting quietly in the room, holding her often. Even on the very last confused and restless day, Erin knew when we would leave the room and didn’t like it. I left briefly for the first time in many days, and had dinner with Nathan and the kids, and I came back for the night shift. At the very very end, I stared into her eyes (which if you know me, is a whole other thing I’m not keen on, but she had the kind of eyes you wanted to get lost in, anyway) and I told her I would be right here with her, I would walk her all the way home. I told her that after this she would go to Dayne and out to the Marquesas and there would be a bonfire, and dancing, and singing. I hope that there are fires and dances and songs happening now, all over, in the places where she loved people and people loved her. I know that she was not afraid as long as one of us was there holding onto her hands, and that’s how it went. She was, contrary to what we had anticipated, talking, conscious and aware until just before she left. She smiled a couple of times, she squeezed my hands, and she astonished the nurses (who were with us in the room) with her mind’s determination to stick with us until the last possible second.

I believe that we are each others’ companions, all of us, each of us, through this incarnation of our energy and onto the next. I don’t believe that Erin was ever *not* alive, as my belief system is that we come from, and return to, the same energy source. Therefore I also don’t believe she can ever *not* be here.

That said:

Our personal loss is so immense. We are human, and we attach ourselves, so often, to the human form of our loved ones. I feel especially petulant and angry, and I’ll admit that I sent Susan and Barbara out of the room so that I could climb onto the bed with my sister and beg her to come back. As you may imagine she declined to answer me, but I like to think had she been able to answer in a way that I would hear, she would have said no anyway.

She is truly onto the next phase, whatever that is. I have to believe that she’s back home in the universe, and I want to thank each and every person who was involved in helping walk her home. It was all of us, it is always all of us. Walking each other home.

On Grieving Out Loud

Tonight my daughter found the nightgown sitting on my pillow and said “this is so cute, was it your sister’s?” And I said yes and she said “are you going to wear it?” And I said yes. And so she (11 years old) handed it to me gently and said “let’s get you changed for bed mommy. You’ve got to sleep”

She brought me a bowl of stroganoff and a coke, and as soon as I finished eating, Henry climbed into my lap and arranged himself this way. Here, I’m asking him to please not lick me because even though I love cats I (like my sister @apopheniabrown) am allergic.

We mustn’t hide our grief and pain from our children. They should see us live, love, grieve, recover. When we show them that life is messy and painful, gorgeous and ecstatic, and that as humans we mostly emerge intact, we then give our children a foundation free of fear. Fear of loss and pain prevent so many of us from doing and feeling so many amazing things.

My children will know that this was so hard, that I hurt so much, that I will miss her with a physical ache, always. And they will watch me rise up. They will know that I stand confident in my decision to push most of my life aside to sit with her. They will, I hope, one day reference this event when making similar decisions in heir own lives.

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The Holidays-A Survival Guide

This year I did not struggle to provide for xmas. I saved all year, as I have in the past, and had a reserve of cash just for this. We made gifts for teachers. I made a decision about charity vs. products for adults in the family. I had enough money to get a few great things for my kids and loved ones. We have enough.  We are fed. We have a lovely home. We are free from concerns about meeting our most basic needs.

But it’s still the holidays, a hard time for many folks. I was a single mom for a while before I met my ex, and Christmas was rough some years. I’m going to leave out commentary here on what holidays are like when you’re in a loveless marriage. Enough of us have been there. If that’s you this year, please reach out. I have nothing but empathy for you.

This year, I kept my commitments low and my expectations right down there with them. Holidays have historically been catastrophically terrible for my mental health, and I am determined to put an end to that nonsense. So I did a few things to ensure my stability during  this weird and whacky time.

Here’s my list of kindness toward myself:

Relax about the house.

Really. It’ll be uncomfortable sometimes. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Let it go once in a while, or for weeks, or until the last possible second.

Be okay throwing things out

When I found myself picking up a thing (especially an ornament or decoration) and wondering either 1) where does this go? I can’t figure out where this should go or 1) why do I have this? It’s ugly.- I gave myself permission to throw it out.

Turn down invitations

No, I don’t want to go to your holiday open house. No, I’m not going to make it to brunch. No, I don’t want company. Why? Because Netflix is why. This is not unique to the holiday season but at this time of the year it’s crucial that I stand firm in my position that there’s not one damn thing wrong with sitting on the couch in my pajamas when I could be doing x or x or y or bonding with my friends.

Stay the course when it comes to the budget

I like to say I’m anti consumer but the fact is that I love the holidays and the shopping that goes with it. I ADORE giving presents. I love that the holidays gives me an excuse to give people things I want them to have. I struggle with this contradiction in myself. I like to save a little all year and use only cash to get gifts. At the last minute, I tend to get to selling off a few of my things to make extra cash for the extra shopping that I am prone to do. But one thing I do not ever want to do again is use credit to finance Christmas gifts. I love that credit exists and I know plenty of people use it, use it well, and are happy with how it works. But it feels like a looming monster over my shoulder. This year, I’m working two jobs to pay off a debt I incurred when my mother died in New Mexico, and I gave myself the freedom of locking up all my credit cards. I’ve paid for each gift with the cash reserve I saved. I am struggling now that it’s close to christmas and there are SO. MANY. AWESOME. THINGS. I want to buy for people. But my best gift to my loved ones is my sanity, and my sanity depends in part on not feeling the crush of holiday debt.

Keep expectations low when it comes to kid bonding

Sure, kids love rituals. But kids also have a short attention span. What they remember isn’t the actual playing out of the ritual (which in our case often involves children wandering in and out of the room where the Special Movie is playing, leaving their homemade hot chocolate to cool untouched, listlessly hanging two ornaments on the tree, and then bolting for the yard because hello, it’s so nice outside)- kids remember that you made the effort.  Kids are weird. They do have expectations, and they do want things to be “just like last year” but when they’re 20, they just remember that you showed up. Which brings me to:

Just show up.

Just go. To work. To the kitchen. To the restaurant with the kids. To the couch with a cup of coffee. Just show up, and let the universe take care of the rest. What people remember is that you were there. What matters is that you showed up. Take a nap after. Drink some wine during. Just show up, and keep showing up, and pretty soon it’ll be January.

I’m going to make it. I’m not where I would like to be, emotionally, at the holidays. Not yet. But I am stronger than I was last year and I am a completely different person than I was the year before that.

High Impact Gratitude, Winter 2014 Edition

Early in 2013 I went through some medical things that left me (to put it mildly) with a lot of cognitive catching up to do. To be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure that I would find my way back to a place where I could learn and retain new information. I became scared of doing anything new, and discouraged because I’d lost my edge in a few different places. Stuff that 5 years ago I wouldn’t have ever hesitated to jump right into became monumentally scary. I’d lost the confidence in my ability to teach myself. I, a person who pulled apart computers and soldered components onto motherboards, turned into someone afraid to pull pieces off a car.

Today I did a small project that was embarrassingly easy, after I spent four hours psyching myself up for the task of removing 4 screws and some clips. I am ever so slowly working my way back to that other place, my comfortable place of “bring it, I’ll figure it out”.

My #highimpactgratitude for the day is about faith. My loved ones and my network of support people have never lost their faith in me, and that faith has propped me up through nearly two years of relentless self-doubt and struggle to come back to baseline.

I never imagined I would be that person, holding a tool and forgetting what its purpose was or where I was going with it. And I was petrified that I would remain in that state forever. Thank you, all of you lovely and wonderful champions, for insisting to me that things get different.